House of Wax (1953) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

Following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August and October, Jules is fixing to round out 2018 with 31 more days of classic American Horror movies.

So brace yourself, folks.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Director: Andre DeToth
Starring:  Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Paul Picerni

By 1953, more and more films had started to be made in colour, but horror was still pretty much a monochrome genre. One of the exceptions was the wonderful two-colour Technicolour Mystery Of The Wax Museum made in 1933.

Twenty years later, it would be the inspiration for another innovative idea – 3D. The previous year’s Bwana Devil had kicked off the new craze, but Warner Brothers smelled money and rushed a remake of their earlier feature (which itself was based on Charles S. Belden’s three-act play, The Wax Works) utilising both the new technology of 3D filming and the then-revolutionary Warnerphonic sound system, which used four audio tracks to immerse the audience in sound from the film.

With the threat of ever more TVs appearing in the homes of their audiences, cinemas had to fight back and offer something you couldn’t get anywhere else and this was it. They were still just gimmicks though, what makes House Of Wax still stand up 65 year later is that it’s an absolute classic, with or without the bells and whistles.

In early 1900s New York, Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) is a sculptor of wax figures for a museum he co-runs with his business partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts). Jarrod takes his art seriously and focuses on historical figures, so is appalled when Burke suggests adding more sensational and horrific exhibits to increase revenue. The sculptor plans to buy his partner out, but before he can, Burke torches the building for the insurance money, leaving Jarrod for dead.

Unknown to anyone, he survived the blaze, though was horrifically injured in the process. Now in a wheelchair and without the use of his hands, Jarrod opens a new House Of Wax, with the aid of deaf-mute sculptor Igor (Charles Bronson) and another assistant, Leon Averill (Nedrick Young) and seems to have accepted the idea of staging horrific waxworks.

Burke is soon murdered by a cloaked figure who makes it look like suicide, which Jarrod recreates in his House Of Wax, as is his fiancée, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), whos body mysteriously disappears from the morgue.

When Cathy’s roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) visits the wax museum, she is struck by the identical resemblance between the new Joan Of Arc figure and her friend. Suspecting a connection, Cathy soon becomes stalked by the cloaked figure herself, as Jarrod becomes obsessed with her image for his next creation…

Considering the brand-new gimmick of 3-D was a big selling point of House Of Wax, it’s used surprisingly sparingly here. While later films would be throwing anything and everything at the screen, there’s only a few elements thrust into the foreground, like can-can dancers, the brilliantly staged fire set-piece and most glaringly of all, the pitchman outside the museum thwacking two paddleballs at the screen for what seems like an age.

Famously, Director Andre DeToth was blind in one eye and unable to experience 3-D effects, so didn’t see what the fuss was about. Instead, he put his focus into delivering a gloriously lurid, colourful and atmospheric film that takes the basic plot from its predecessor, but puts the focus firmly on horror elements. There’s no plucky reporters chasing a story here, just madness, death and revenge. Lovely.

First off, it looks absolutely stunning at all times. The new, improved House Of Wax is gloriously vivid, full of graphic real life horrors, realiser in the most dramatic of styles, while the fog-laden cobbled streets and tiled rooftops of 1902 New York feel threatening and oppressive, even without the cloaked killer lurking in them.

Best of all is Jarrod’s huge basement lair with its sprawling glass tubes and massive bubbling vat of wax, which feels like a modern updating of Frankenstein’s laboratory. This is a film where you can see where the money went and it’s dazzling.

The cast is top-notch too, with a young Charles Bronson looking like he’s made of wax himself and exuding menace and Phyllis Kirk’s leading lady treating a fine line between vulnerable terror and steely resolve to find her friend’s killer. She’s at the heart of perhaps the film’s most heart-stopping scene when she’s chased by the cloaked figure and nobody will so much as open a door to help her. It’s the middle of the biggest city in the world and she’s absolutely alone. Brrrr. She’s really appealing in the role and is a big part of why it’s such an engaging tale.

Obviously the biggest part is the late, great Vincent Price, who is not long into the leading man part of his career here, but feels as if he’s never done anything else. That charisma of his absolutely rips out of the screen more than any 3D ever could, that twinkle in the eye a subtle clue that there’s much more to this man than it seems.

Once the mask comes off, both literally and metaphorically, the effects on his face are suitably nasty too, making him a true walking nightmare, worse than any that he’s put in his museum. He would obviously go on to create much more significant roles in the years to come, but even at this early stage, Vincent Price is simply astonishing.

House Of Wax is something of an oddity in that it’s a throwback to the Grand Guignol horror of old, just as cinema was embracing the Atomic Age, but at the same time was ultra-modern in its adoption of new technology. Regardless, it’s absolutely bloody magnificent and is essential viewing for lovers of the macabre.

Rating: 5/5.

JULESAVThe Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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